A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"the sorrow that changed and changes my life"

Charles Eliot Norton in 1903

When Morris returned from Iceland in the fall of 1871, he wrote a long letter to his accomplished American friend, Charles Eliot Norton. Norton, a well-known editor*, had been in Italy with his wife Susan, but was now traveling North. Morris wrote: “Please give my kindest remembrances to Mrs. Norton and the rest of your party … I hope, but don't expect that you will enjoy Berlin—” **

Indeed Norton did not enjoy Berlin at all. In fact he never reached it, because in Dresden his wife died in childbirth. From that moment onwards, he was a changed man: his happiest times would now belong to the past.

Returning to the United States without his wife, he saw his country in a new light. He took no pleasure in coming home: the steamer journey across the ocean had just increased the “material distance between me and the best part of my life”, he wrote. The memories of his time in Italy had become “the secret treasure” of his life; his lonely existence in the US, by contrast, was bare. Perhaps this emotional dichotomy was what allowed him to make a cool, critical analysis of his home country, at a time when so many others were blindly patriotic.

A year after Susan's death, Norton wrote to Henry James in a reflective mode. His letter touched on the subject of the United States, and its relative greatness when compared with the rest of the world:
No doubt there is great & restless vivacity of mind, much brightness of surface; & certainly there are many virtues to be found, even in the newest & roughest sets (at least Bret Harte, our latest immortal, so assures us,)—and Cambridge is no doubt as near the centre of the earth as any place so far north can possibly be. But it is a barren & solitary earth,—and it would be a wretched and unworthy patriotism, or a mere love of paradox, or an unmanly timidity and self distrust, that would hinder one who has known the best, from saying distinctly, “this is not the best & will not in our time be the best.”

Before the tragedy, Norton had been a dear friend to Morris and his circle, but he was sometimes a bit neglected. Edward Burne-Jones wrote to Norton just before the disaster, apologizing for forgetting to write, and pointing out that Morris was just as negligent in writing: “He behaves as badly to you as I do—fifty-two times a year we say to each other 'Have you written to Norton?' ” ***

Although Norton changed after the disaster, his friendship with the circle became closer than ever, and he was clearly less neglected. Georgiana, Burne-Jones's wife, explained the shift: “from that time [Susan's death] our sympathy with her husband changed affection into devotion.'There was no need for you to be dearer to your friends,' Edward wrote to him, 'but you will be.'

*  His distinguished career as a Harvard Professor had not yet begun.
**  From letter #154 in The Collected Letters of William Morris, Vol. I, edited by Norman Kelvin.
***  See page 23 of linked text. Georgiana's quote can be found on page 27.

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